Hell & High Water, page 14part #1 of THIRDS Series
“You shouldn’t eavesdrop,” his dad grumbled.
“You’ve been telling me that since I was a kid. I think we both know that lesson never took. What happened to Cael the last time they went in?” he asked again, doing his best to keep a level head and not think about his family keeping secrets from him. Tony hesitated before finally giving in.
“It’s not easy for him being on a team of big cats. He has this stupid notion he has to prove himself every time they go feral. His psych evals last quarter after the incident revealed how he sees himself in regard to the rest of his Felid teammates. How he’s inadequate for being the smallest, his inability to roar, the fact he runs fast but in short bursts, his hunting by vision rather than scent, and his trouble with adapting to new environments.” Tony put his tablet away, his eyes filled with concern. “The last case that brought us out here, Cael got in over his head. He didn’t think he needed to wait for backup and found himself up against a jaguar Therian coalition. Came out of it pretty banged up.”
Dex frowned, trying to recall when that was. He surely would remember losing his shit. When Tony looked away, Dex’s jaw dropped. “You told me he was undercover!” Dex recalled what Pearce said to him about the THIRDS not wanting to admit their agents were vulnerable. Dex hadn’t wanted to believe it, but now he knew the truth. What else had Pearce been telling the truth about?
“Keep your voice down,” Tony ordered. “You think I wanted to keep it from you? He made me promise not to tell you.”
“Why would you agree to such a stupid request?”
“Because you would have expected me to do the same,” Tony replied quietly. “Look, I know how protective you boys are of each other, but you need to get your heads out of your asses. You should have outgrown this phase by now.”
Dex folded his arms over his chest stubbornly. “You know I’m never going to stop looking out for him.”
“And he’s never going to stop looking up to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t turn to each other for help. It’s not weakness. I wish you would both get that into your thick skulls before you give me any more gray hair.”
As much as he hated to admit it, his dad was right. “How’d he get out of it?”
“Ash. He got in there and beat the tar out of them. He’s a Grade A son of a bitch, but he cares about Cael. Looks after him.”
“Damn. I really want to hate him.”
Tony gave Dex a pat on the back. “The feeling’s probably mutual.”
Dex let out a noncommittal grunt. At least now, he understood why Ash was putting up with him. If it weren’t for Cael, the bastard would probably be making his life miserable. Not that he wasn’t making a good go of it.
The sound of the heavy screen hitting the floor at the back of the truck interrupted his thoughts, and he saw Rosa standing to one side, PSTC kit strapped next to her backpack as she neatly put away Cael’s gear and hung up his uniform. His brother was up first.
All these years later, and Dex still cringed when he heard his brother’s painful cry as his mass shifted. Proteins, fats, and cells rearranged to bring out his Therian form. When they were kids, Dex had asked Cael what it was like to be a Therian, and he’d never forgotten his little brother’s answer or his sadness when he’d given it.
“It’s like half of me is missing, but it’s not, it’s inside me. But no matter what form I’m in, I’ll never be able to get the two halves together. I’ll never be whole, like you. Dad says my Therian form is my soul, so I’m as whole as a Human, but it doesn’t feel that way.”
It had taken Cael a lot to come to terms with being a Therian, and despite knowing he was adopted, he admitted he never wondered what it could have been like with his biological parents. As far as Cael was concerned, Dex and Tony were his real family, especially knowing the hardship Tony had endured by adopting him. Like Dex, Cael had lost his family to the riots. The apartment building his parents lived in had been primarily Therian. A group of evil bastards set it on fire in the middle of the night, not caring that it was filled with families and small children. Cael had been six months old and the only survivor.
Tony had been on the scene, a detective with the HPF at the time, and he’d been the one to find Cael. His dad always told Cael how the moment he held him in his arms, he knew he wouldn’t be able to let go. It was during a time when interspecies adoption hadn’t existed, and Tony faced a world of anger and prejudice from both sides. But their dad was a hard-ass and a good man. He fought for Cael, sacrificing his job at the HPF when he was subtly warned that having a Therian son would be damaging to his career. Flipping them off, Tony completed the adoption process, pretty much making it up as he went along, and Cael Maddock joined their family. Tony lost his job, but his resolve and heart gained him a position at the newly opened THIRDS.
Dex took a seat on the bench, Sloane’s PSTC kit on the floor by his feet. The screen lifted and Cael shuddered from nose to spotty tail, his ears twitching, and his mouth opening wide in a yawn to reveal sharp fangs. He stretched his long legs one at a time, wobbling momentarily until he got his bearings. Then he trotted over to Dex and put his head on his lap while Ash stepped into the large square, the screen coming down once again.
“Hey, little brother.” Dex scratched Cael behind the ears and smiled when Cael closed his eyes and purred. A low growl came from behind the screen, soon followed by a roar that shook the whole damn truck.
“Fuck.” Dex swallowed hard when the screen went up. And here he thought Ash couldn’t get any scarier. How wrong he was. Ash sneezed and shook his massive head, his dark lion’s mane swishing with the movement. He lifted his head and looked at Dex, releasing a huff.
“Well look at you,” Dex gasped, a hand going to his chest. “So majestic.”
Ash let out an angry hiss, his bared fangs bigger and sharper than Cael’s. He crept closer, a low rumbling growl coming from him. Dex told himself he wasn’t intimidated. It was still Ash in there. It was no surprise he was as big a dick in his Therian form as he was in his Human form. A fierce roar had Dex scrambling up onto the bench, his heart pounding against his chest, and his tranq gun at the ready. Ash rushed forward, and Dex aimed his rifle.
“I swear I will send your hairy ass back to Narnia if you don’t back the fuck up,” Dex warned him, releasing the safety on his rifle.
“Ash!” Sloane’s reprimand went unheeded as Ash swiped at Dex. Lucky for Dex, Ash’s paw never made contact. Cael batted Ash’s paw away and hissed sharply, his ears flattened back as he swiped at Ash, catching him on the side of his big furry head. No blood was drawn, but Cael got his point across. Claws off his big brother.
Ash gave a start, letting out a mewl as he backed up. With a huff, he sat down, and Dex watched as Cael approached him and bumped his head under Ash’s chin then proceeded to lick him, which Ash seemed to enjoy, judging by his purring.
Dex jumped down and put the safety back on his gun, his glare on Ash before he shifted his gaze to his brother. “Cael, come on. Stop licking the dude. That’s gross.”
Letty let out a snort. “Please, like you don’t lick dudes.”
“That’s different,” Dex explained with a grimace. “None of those dudes were Ash. Besides, last time I checked, Ash was allergic to nuts.”
The rest of the team laughed before Tony clapped his hands and shooed the two Felids as if they were a couple of house cats. “Out you two. It’s getting too damn crowded in here.”
Letty opened the back doors for the two Felids who scrambled from the truck and leapt out, Rosa close behind, laughing at her partner. Outside Dex could see Cael and Ash play fighting, pouncing on each other, rolling around, and nipping at each other. It was kind of sweet. Calvin closed the BearCat’s back doors again and stood to one side.
“All right, let’s go, Hobbs.” Tony resumed his seat and Dex watched as Hobbs stepped into the large rectangle in nothing but a towel. He gave a solemn nod and the screen came down. Beside the screen, Calvin waited patiently. Dex notic
Seconds later, there was a series of ferocious growls and the screen came up. Dex had to admit, he was impressed. Hobbs’s Therian form was very rare, a golden tabby tiger larger than the usual tiger Therian, with stripes and fur paler in color. His coloring made him more remarkable. Unlike his teammates, Hobbs silently padded to Calvin and rubbed his head against Calvin’s leg. With a warm smile, Calvin scratched Hobbs on the side of his head and the two quietly joined their teammates outside.
Well, only one left. Dex frowned at the butterflies in his stomach. This was silly. He didn’t get nervous when the rest of his team was shifting, why should he feel nervous now? Therians maintained their Humanity while in their Therian form, providing they had any Humanity to begin with, which was why psychopaths were more feral than the average Therian. It was also confirmed that in their Therian form, Human characteristics remained. An unhealthy Therian would be unhealthy both in Human and Therian form. Many Therians didn’t see it that way. They believed their animal form mirrored the soul of the Human side. Dex had never been very spiritual, but then he couldn’t explain why he was so nervous waiting to see his partner in his Therian form.
Sloane stood and cleared his throat, addressing Tony. “You mind giving us a minute?”
“Sure.” Tony gave Dex’s arm a pat before exiting the truck and joining the rest of the team.
“What’s up?” Dex studied his partner. “You’re not getting shy on me now, are you?”
“No, I need you to understand the severity of what’s going on here. This is going to be dangerous. You need to stick close to the team. Keep your eyes open, don’t make any sudden movements, and call for backup if you need it. Ash, Cael, and I will be busy tracking down Everton, so I won’t be able to save your ass. The last thing I need is for you—”
Dex held a hand up and cut him off. “You know what? Stop.”
“I’m a rookie, I get it, but I don’t appreciate this Jekyll and Hyde thing you’ve got going on. One minute you’re good, the next minute you’re ready to take a swing at me. It’s your job to show me the ropes, not rip me a new one for doing something I haven’t even done yet. I’m your partner. You don’t have to like me, but you sure as hell have to respect me.”
Sloane blinked at him. “I… I had no idea I was coming off that way.” He pressed his lips together and gave him a nod. “You’re right. I haven’t been treating you with the respect you deserve. You’re a capable agent, and I’ve been letting my own insecurities cloud my judgment.”
“What are you talking about?” Insecurities? Dex couldn’t imagine Sloane Brodie being insecure about anything.
“After what happened to Gabe….” Sloane shook his head and that’s when it hit Dex.
“That’s why you’ve been acting like such a jerk every time we hit the streets? Because you’re worried about something happening to me?” Now that he thought about it, about what Gabe had actually meant to Sloane, it all made perfect sense, and after that media confrontation, Dex cursed himself for not being more attentive to his partner. He was quickly picking up on all of Sloane’s quirks and behaviors. It was true that his partner suffered from disturbing mood swings, but Dex was learning there was always a reason behind them. That pop about his partners not lasting certainly hadn’t helped.
“Not just you. I worry about everyone on my team.”
“I understand, but it’s not your job to babysit me and kiss my ouchies. You need to trust me. I might be a pain in the ass, but I know what I’m doing.” He watched Sloane carefully as his partner considered his words, his gaze somewhere off to the side. Dex didn’t know what was going through Sloane’s head at the moment, but he was relieved when Sloane met his gaze and held his hand out.
“Okay, but promise me you’ll stick to the formation and be careful. No acting like this is a Die Hard flick, okay? If I hear the words yippee ki-yay come out of your mouth, we’re going to have a serious problem.”
It was kind of scary how well Sloane was getting to know him. Dex took his hand and gave him a cheeky grin. “Deal. Seal it with a kiss?”
“Get out,” Sloane groaned. “You couldn’t help yourself, could you?”
“Don’t know what you’re missing.” With a wink, Dex stood back, his arms folded over his chest.
“What?” Sloane eyed him warily as he started removing his clothes. “Stop looking at me like that. This isn’t a strip joint.”
Dex wriggled his eyebrows. “You’re right. It’s better. I don’t have to pay.”
Sloane stopped in the middle of pulling off his shirt and glowered at him.
“All right,” Dex said with a sigh. He reached into his back pocket and pulled a ten dollar bill out of his wallet, waving it at Sloane as he walked over. “Just so you have an idea what this partnership means to me. This would have gotten me at least a lap dance at Papi Chulo’s.” Sloane arched an eyebrow at him and Dex grinned broadly as he stuck his finger in the waistband of Sloane’s pants and gave it a tug. Sloane let out a low grunt and Dex very neatly slipped the bill in partway.
“You’re an idiot.”
Dex stepped back and waited. “Well, come on. I expect to get my money’s worth.”
Sloane plucked the bill from his pants, removed his wallet from his back pocket, stuck it in, returned it to his pants, and then went for his belt.
“Now we’re talking.” Dex could see Sloane was trying his hardest not to smile. He was biting down on his bottom lip as he removed his belt and unzipped. “Do you need music? I can provide music.” He broke off into a throaty rendition of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and Sloane burst into laughter.
“What the fuck are you singing?”
“You’re right,” Dex chastised himself. “‘Black Velvet’ is more appropriate for this moment. I should’ve gone with that first.” He snickered as Sloane doubled over laughing. The sound was rich and deep, and Dex found it infectious. He liked it when Sloane laughed. It made his amber eyes light up and little creases form at the sides, lines that proved Sloane used to laugh a lot more than he did, though the guy wasn’t doing too badly these days.
“What in the hell is going on in here?”
They both spun to Tony who was gaping at them. “We’re in the middle of a hunt and you two are… I don’t even know what you’re doing, but it sure as hell isn’t what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Dex opened his mouth when Sloane held up a hand. “It’s my fault, sir.”
“I don’t care whose fault it is, get your asses in gear. Dex, get down here and let your partner shift, now.”
“Yes, sir.” Dex quickly snatched his ballistic shield off the wall, along with his helmet, and made his way to the end of the truck. He waited for Tony to turn around before looking over his shoulder at Sloane who was watching him in amusement. He gave him a thumbs-up and whispered hoarsely. “I’ll make you a playlist.” When he jumped down, he could hear Sloane snickering from inside the truck. Dex put his helmet on and secured the straps under his chin as he joined Letty, Rosa, and Calvin.
“What were you two doing?” Calvin’s voice was low so Tony wouldn’t hear.
“Paying Sloane to strip for me.” Dex grinned, lowering his visor. “Best ten bucks I ever spent.”
Something huge and black leapt out of the back of the truck, and Dex nearly fell over his own feet from the surprise. When he found his balance, he found himself gawking at the huge black jaguar. “Sloane….”
Sloane turned his head, his amber eyes glowing bright before he darted off down the street, Ash and Cael taking off after him. Dex stood there for a moment, his heart racing. Sloane was a Therian, but finally seeing the animal inside him come out was a strange experience. He wished he’d had more time to really see him. He’d been impressive, that was for sure. His black coat glossy, with the faintest hints of rosettes visible on his
“Okay, team. Good luck and be careful.” With that said, Tony climbed into the back of the BearCat. The boom of the doors when they shut echoed around them. Well, this was it. Calvin moved first, with Hobbs moving silently beside him, the rest of them following down Cayler Street. They stuck close to each other, shields in hand and rifles at the ready. When they got to the end and made a right, things got a whole lot rougher.
“You see a black jaguar running that isn’t Sloane, you shoot,” Rosa told him.
Crap. He seriously hoped he didn’t end up tranqing his partner. That would really piss Sloane off. Speaking of, his partner had been right when he said they’d be going into battle. The place looked like a war zone. He couldn’t say he’d been here more than a handful of times, maybe fewer, and that had been many years ago when he’d been a kid, before the place had turned into the desolate ruins it was. It had once been filled with families, homes, and businesses. Cars and business vans once lined the streets. Now the streets were empty, and the buildings around them were all abandoned and dilapidated, their exposed ironwork rusting away.
When they got to Noble Street, things got worse. With little imagination, Dex could see himself in some foreign territory waiting to fall under heavy fire. Around them was nothing but dirt, rock, dead shrubs and weeds growing through the cracks in the asphalt. The buildings were crumbling around them, those still standing tagged with graffiti. Piles of debris littered the streets, and the only sounds were the ones coming from the crushed gravel and pieces of broken glass underneath their boots as they moved steadily onward.
Although Dex couldn’t see anything through the windowless, darkened spaces of the many buildings, he could feel eyes on him. They were being watched. As long as the Therians didn’t come out to play, Dex was cool with anyone watching.
Hobbs stopped in his tracks, and everyone else did the same, watching the tiger Therian as he lifted his head and sniffed the air. He trotted ahead, and they all quickly trailed after him. When Hobbs picked up speed, so did they, until they were jogging after him. Something lunged at Hobbs from the darkness, knocking him over. Hobbs rolled, landing on his feet and hissing, his jaws opening wide and baring huge fangs. He clawed at the large cougar, catching it in the side of the neck, drawing blood and a painful hiss.
Another Therian leapt out from the shadows onto Hobbs’s back, attempting to bite his neck, but again Hobbs rolled, crushing the smaller Felid under him. It was two against one, and Dex cursed under his breath when another Felid appeared and lunged at Hobbs, this time snapping his jaws around Hobbs’s back leg. Hobbs let out a fierce cry, twisting his body to snap at the just out of reach leopard.
“Hobbs!” Calvin bolted after his partner. Shit, it was exactly what Dex had feared. So much for tight formation.
The wounded cougar set his sights on Calvin, and Dex took aim, following the cougar as he charged. When he lunged, Dex fired, and Calvin ducked out of the way. The dart from Dex’s tranq rifle plunged itself into the Felid’s neck, sending it scrambling away.
Movement from Dex’s left caught his eye, and he swallowed hard when several Therians emerged slowly from the shadows, their teeth bared as they hissed or growled. It was a mixture of wolf and Felid Therians. Dex breathed in deeply, telling himself to calm down, to steady his heart rate. His gloved fingers tightened on his rifle as more Therians materialized. If any of them made a move toward him, Dex was ready to take them down. He heard shots fired and saw Calvin taking on a small pack of wolf Therians. Two of them lunged at Calvin from behind, knocking him down and his helmet hit the ground hard. Calvin didn’t get up.
“Calvin!” Dex, Letty, and Rosa shot at everything moving that wasn’t Hobbs, who was busy keeping his unconscious partner safe. “He’s in trouble,” Dex said, hitting another Therian in the neck. Shit, he was going to have to reload soon.
“So are we,” Rosa pointed out.
Dex quickly scanned the terrain and spotted a three story with a fire escape that didn’t look like it was a strong breeze away from turning to dust. “There!” He motioned toward the building. “Better vantage point. If we stay here, we’re sitting ducks.”
“Let ’em come,” Letty snarled, cocking her rifle.
“Okay, Ripley, and when you run out of tranqs and ammo, then what? Let’s move. Cover the rear.” He gave Rosa a small shove toward the building.
“Rookie’s giving orders now?” Rosa asked, amused.
“Sloane’s not here, so yeah, I am.” They ran toward the fire escape’s hanging ladder, and when they reached it, he grabbed Rosa’s vest and hauled her under it. He laid his shield on the ground at his feet and let his rifle hang from its straps so he could lace his fingers together in front of Rosa, boosting her up. “Come on. Letty, move your ass.”
Letty fired off another shot before hauling ass to join him, following Rosa’s lead. Dex was going to tell the girls to lower the ladder when Hobbs roared. Hobbs was taking on half a dozen Therians, all in the hopes of keeping Calvin safe. Dex knew protocol was to fall back and let Hobbs deal with the threat, but screw it. His teammate was lying there like a slab of beef waiting to be served. The ladder came rumbling down in a cacophony of shrilly squeals and rattling, but Dex had other ideas.
“Dex, what are you waiting for!” Rosa called down. “Get your ass up here! I’ll call the sarge.”
“I got this.” Dex reached behind him, unzipping the side compartment of his backpack, pulling out a couple of flash-bangs and sticking one in his pocket. “Let’s see how you like these babies.” Ignoring Rosa and Letty’s curses, he snatched up his shield and hurried down the street, a flash-bang in his free hand as he concentrated on controlling his breathing. Something darted out from his right and sped toward him.
“Fuck!” He picked up the pace, pulling the pin from the flash-bang with his teeth before hurling it high and long. “Hobbs! Incoming!”
Hobbs dropped to the ground and rolled, his back paws kicking up dirt as he darted out of the way. The flash-bang exploded in a cloud of white smoke and blinding light. Something jumped out at Dex from his left and he flailed, skidding and hitting the dirt like he was trying to steal home plate, his shield tucked against him. He slid under the wolf Therian as it leapt over him, and then wasted no time in scrambling to his feet and taking off again with the wolf on his heels.
Okay, so now he understood why Sloane wanted him to cut back on the Cheesy Doodles. Running would be a whole lot easier without his damn shield, but he’d be stupid to leave it behind. He removed the other flash-bang from his pocket and pulled the pin. “Hobbs!”
The Therians snapping at Hobbs pulled back, and Hobbs seized the opportunity, leaping to Calvin and lying over him, shielding him with his body. He tucked his massive head under his big paws. A heavy mass crashed into Dex, knocking the wind out of him and sending him sprawling on the ground, his shield landing behind him. Thankfully, he’d managed to keep a tight grip on his flash-bang. With his free hand, he snatched up his shield and covered his body, his legs tucked up behind it as the first bite came down, the weight crushing him between the asphalt and the ballistic armor.
“Son of a bitch!” They were surrounding Hobbs. “Fuck this shit.” Dex thrust his shield forward receiving a shrill yelp from the Therian on the other side, giving him enough time to pull back his arm and hurl the flash-bang. “Incoming!”
Hobbs let out a roar from the noise, but Dex saw him gently bite down on Calvin’s vest on his shoulder before he started dragging his partner through the dirt. A second wolf Therian materialized out of nowhere, snapping at Dex’s face. Reacting on instinct, Dex pulled back, the wolf Therian’s teeth miraculously grazing only his jaw, leaving nothing but a sharp sting behind. Unsuccessful at ripping Dex’s face off, it clamped its jaws down on the protective padding around his upper arm. Thank God for